Andy Neal on Hiker Podcast, Plus-Sized Modeling, and Social Media’s Double-Edged Sword

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Hello, my name is Oats, and today I’m excited to chat with Andy Neal, host of the Hiker Podcast, outdoor influencer, creator, and hiker extraordinaire. Now, the last time Andy and I chatted was in 2020. I lived in a school bus and was fresh off the Colorado Trail, and he was in the midst of season one of Hiker Podcast. Since then, the podcast and Andy’s content has grown and he’s using the spotlight to focus on some really inspiring topics: but I won’t spoil anything quite yet. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity. The full recorded interview can be found on Instagram Live here. All images courtesy of Andy Neal.

So, in an attempt to move somewhat chronologically, let’s start at the beginning. You began hiking only 3 years ago, what was it that first inspired you to hit the trail?

In 2017 I had a complete paradigm shift and my family and I left behind a career in the clergy. I then went to film school at Southern Oregon University and was able to leave with a second degree in digital cinema. I graduated in June of 2019 and was determined to stay in southern Oregon - but I was floundering. I had left a belief system and a career where I thought I had it all figured out - that and the realities of adopting 3 kids from foster care, two of them with special needs, began to set in. My therapist recommended going for a hike on the PCT and my response was, “What’s the PCT?”. The next week I found a hike that followed the trail for a mile. I fell in love at that moment and began posting about it on Instagram. Soon after I changed my handle to @andyfilmsandhikes and that’s the first part of my story. 

So, hiking and podcast producing are very different ways to spend your time. What was it that ignited the flame of creating Hiker Podcast?

I had been doing a Disney Podcast for years - I’m a huge Disney fan and still am. When the pandemic hit and no one was able to go to the movies or the parks I started getting bored with the project and we could barely make our mortgage payment. I realized there was nothing that I could do but hike and make Hiker Podcast. I reached out to Sawyer Products on a whim and they immediately partnered with me - it snowballed from there. I’ve been able to have world-renowned hikers, Second Chance Hiker, Darwin, Shilletha, on and they’ve all got incredible stories to tell. Merging my love with hiking with my love for film and media has been really exciting. I’ll be doing interviews at PCT Days and hopefully talking to hikers as the “man on trail”. It’s crazy, but it’s doing what I love. 

Is there a standout story or piece of advice that a guest has shared on your podcast that has stuck with you and echoes in your mind during tough or similar circumstances in the backcountry?

It’s really not just one story - I’m a straight, cis-genered, white, male. Talking to the BIPOC and LGBTQ communtiy and realizing how much they’ve had to overcome to be able to go where they go and hike where they hike is so amazing. I find I’m constantly trying to remind myself of my privilege - hiking is for everyone but unfortunately it also is not. We need to change that. Shilletha posted recently on her Instagram that she’s really looking forward to being out of a certain state because it’s scary for her to hike through as a black, gay woman on the CDT. I’ve noticed on my hikes a lot more diversity on the trail, and when I, a big white guy in a trucker hat, come upon people that don’t look like me I notice in their eyes that questioning look of, “is he safe?” That’s a reality that some people have to face every day on trail and it makes me want to leverage my privilege in everything I create so one day hiking can be for everyone. 

Now, since we last chatted, your following has grown substantially and you’ve used the spotlight to focus in on some important topics in the outdoors including body positivity, inclusion and accessibility of the outdoors, and mental health, to name a few. How do you feel your message or messages have been received by your audience? 

My audience has overwhelmed me. I get dozens of messages every day from people who are plus-sized, disabled, or recovering from injury, that share the impact seeing me being positive in the outdoors has had on them in their journey to finding the outdoors. Sometimes it’s an achievement just to make it around the block. You don’t need to go out and conquer the PCT on the first day - just head out for a quarter mile. The messages I get from people who are legitimately thankful and inspired to go find and enjoy the green spaces in their local community. I’m very blessed here in southern Oregon to have plenty of access to The Redwoods, Crater Lake, and the PCT but there are also people that live in a concrete jungle and don’t have access that’s economically viable for them. I’m also happy to advocate for more green spaces in public spaces, the outdoors is so healing and can do so much for everyone so to hear people say I’ve inspired them has been the most rewarding thing.

So, I’ve heard this term used frequently, “the double-edged sword of social media”, implying that ya know, there’s some benefits and there’s some costs. What would you say the pros and cons of your experience with social media have been?

The pros have certainly been the messages in my DMs. The cons have also been some of the messages in my DMs. There’s the “toxic fitness bros” and the “Instagram diet gurus” that tell me  I am promoting obesity and literally endangering lives because people that otherwise wouldn’t be out there could hurt themselves and die.  Some people have claimed the companies I’m working with are enabling people to stay fat. I’m 300+ lbs, I’ve done some legitimate hikes and I’ve never put myself in a situation where I've felt unsafe. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to either. 

My doctors look at my numbers and say I have great cholesterol and I tell them I’m active and hike frequently but I’m technically “obese” by medical standards. It is what it is and I won’t make apologies for that, and now I’m at the point that I’ll brush the negative comments off. Sometimes I’ll make collages of the comments to post just to show that it happens. It’s sad that people feel the need to belittle others for trying to be active outdoors.

What do you think is something that outdoor companies and/or just regular hikers that recreate on public land can do to increase accessibility and inclusion in the outdoors? 

Show us different people! Plus-sized people, BIPOC, couples that aren’t just white and heterosexual. Show us! So much of what we see is subliminal and if we don’t see ourselves out there we think it’s not for us.

Well Andy thank you so much for coming on with me, it’s been a really exciting experience for me personally to be able to have you on as a guest, you’re really a stellar soul and an inspiration to many. Go follow Andy at @andyfilmsandhikes, his podcast at @hikerpodcast, and I’m Oats, that’s Andy, thanks for joining us, y’all are awesome. Have a good one!

Katie "Oats" Houston (she/her) is a freelance outdoor writer and content creator based in Austin, TX. After being bit by the thru-hiking bug in 2019 on the Appalachian Trail, Katie has since gotten the Colorado Trail and Lone Star Hiking Trail under her belt with a bucket list of many, many more long-distance trails. She enjoys any opportunity to write about her adventures, good trail ethics, and trail stewardship and currently works as the Social Media Lead for The Trek. Check out her adventures with Thru the husky at her website and Instagram.